A revolutionary cancer treatment that remembers the disease and remains like a watchman to prevent it returning is being developed.

Immune cells are being engineered so they not only boost the body's natural defences to fight tumours but stand guard for life, acting like a vaccine.

The study, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, has proven for the first time that engineered "memory T-cells" can persist in the body for more than 14 years.

Professor Chiara Bonini, from Milan's San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, said: "T-cells are a living drug, and in particular have the potential to persist in our body for our whole lives. In trials at a Milan hospital, 10 patients who had bone marrow transplants were given immune boosting therapy that included the memory T-cells. They were found to be there 14 years later.


Professor Daniel Davis, from the University of Manchester, called the study an "important advance" in cancer treatment. "The implication is that infusing genetically modified versions of these particular T-cells, the stem memory T-cells, could provide a long-lasting immune response against a person's cancer," he said.

"Immunotherapy has great potential to revolutionise cancer treatments and this study shows which type of T-cells might be especially useful to manipulate for long-lasting protection."

In another presentation at the AAAS, experts from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle showed their T-cell immunotherapy treatment for leukaemia had an "unprecedented" success rate of 94 per cent in patients who were given only months to live.

Professor Stanley Riddell, from Fred Hutchinson, said balancing the different types of immune cells and then equipping them with cancer-sensing molecules had saved the lives of leukaemia patients for whom all other treatments had failed. "This is unprecedented in medicine to get response rates in this range from very advanced patients."